Gahd, the 70s were weird. Get your heads around this: One of the most successful novel franchises of the era was about incest among the rich. Mercifully, we have the Lifetime Network to remind us how unbelievably strange that decade was with Flowers in the Attic.
For those of you mercifully young enough to forget this cultural milestone/millstone, V.C. Andrews's 1979 novel was a 40 million unit selling block buster. Not bad for a story about under-age rich kids, locked in an attic by their Bible-bashing grandmother and their money-grubbing mother, who turn to incest to pass the time. In this adaptation for the Lifetime Network, Cathy (Kiernan Shipka) and Christopher (Mason Dye) are the oldest of four kids whose blissful 1950s home life is shattered by the death of their father. Mercifully, dear old mom (Heather Graham) can turn to her old money family (Ellen Burstyn and Beau Daniels) to take them in.
Well, if you're going to call "locking the kids in the attic while you get the will rewritten, then leaving them to their own devices for two years while the hormones kick in" a family reunuion. That can only end well.
It's a battle of awful parents, with Burstyn as the evil grandmother and Heather Graham as the ditzy, gold-digging daughter willing to sacrifice her kids to get back in her father's good graces and will.
But that's basically side plot, since everything is shown from the children's POV: Most especially Cathy, Andrews' ingenue heroine. Best known either as Mad Men's Sally Draper, the voice of Jinora in The Legend of Korra, or Jimmy Kimmel's Tantrum Child, Sepka is legitimately good in this. She carries the pain of ruptured adolescence as she becomes the proxy parent to her younger siblings and de facto wife to Christopher.
And then it gets super-creepy as Cathy starts filling out and Chris starts reading girly mags on the roof. "Brothers don't think of their sisters that way," he says as he gives her a haircut that makes her look a little like spiky bob Jennifer Lawrence. And then they get nekkid (during a commercial break) and everything gets just hilarious.
And there's that 800 pound incestuous gorilla in the room again. That this novel was mainstream entertainment is just mindboggling. That Andrews sold millions of copies (so many that her publishers semi-covered up her death so they could hire a ghost writer to churn out 39 more books under her imprimatur) is truly disturbing. It says a lot about the tolerance of audiences for gross immorality and Gothic camp as long as it came in pearls and a twin set. It's like those bits of the Old Testament where you have to go back and double-check who is related to who, because it just got weird. You couldn't make it more inherently deranged high camp than if you had John Waters instructing Joan Collins to slosh that martini harder, goddammit!
Instead, we get the hilarity in the extras of director Deborah Chow (The High Cost of Living) saying it's "primarily about family and family dysfunction" and how she directed it as "just forget the brother/sister element and this is essentially love." Shipka (who is only 13, which makes her scenes even more awkward) instead hits the nail on the head when she describes it as being about "abuse and neglect."
It's undeniably Gothic, but in the same way that Twilight is – as a very fetish/masturbatory excursion. This is PG incest fap material, and it has such an anti-pay off (bar a phenomenal Bursytn shrieking melt down on a stair case) that it could be seen as a disaster. Instead, it's enthralling, because it's an insight into the thinking that says Jane Eyre is a great romance, or has made a disease vector like Count Dracula into a swoon-worthy leading man.
There's already been one film version, back in 1987, but that went for a much more grand guignol finale, with Graham's character hanging from her own wedding dress as Kristy Swanson shrieks "Eat the cookie!" like she's railing against wire coat hangers. It also had that 70s overblown vibe to it, whereas this version seems to aim for a more period sensibility. But then so did Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, which handled sexuality in the 1950s with sensitivity and a heavy heart. This is The Hills Have Eyes with a trust fund.
Because it's playing everything a little straighter, this is far creepier than 1987's adaptation. By contrast, this is perfect drinking game material. Get a DVD, a bunch of friends, and a loooooooot of Scotch. Then every time somebody says "ew! ew!" because the action gets so clean cut icky, take a drink. Of course, by this point, it's all got so creepy and weird that you'll be under the table by the fifth commercial break. That's another oddity: Because this is a made-for-TV version, the editing cuts quickly to black every time the editor gets too squeamish.
This is a gag reflex of a movie, and final proof that Lifetime may actually be the most deranged and dissident TV network on the air. The fact that they're doing the rest of the franchise – oh, no, wait, did I not mention that the novel was so successful that it spawned four sequels? – makes HBO look like pikers. Every other scene is like a Red Wedding of deranged psycho-sexuality.
Flowers in the Attic (Lionsgate) is available on DVD now.
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